Aretha Franklin (1942 – 2018)

Foto ©Associated Newspapers

La scomparsa di Aretha Franklin, spentasi oggi a Detroit dopo una lunga battaglia contro un tumore che l’ aveva costretta ad annunciare il suo addio alle scena un anno e mezzo fa, è un lutto gravissimo per gli appassionati di musica indipendentemente dal genere. La sua incredibile vocalità, basata su mezzi naturali da autentico fenomeno governati da una tecnica straordinaria, appartiene senza dubbio alle più grandi in tutta la storia del canto. Il colore vocale denso, brunito e ricco di armonici tipico della grandi cantanti afroamericane come Marian Anderson, Ella Fitzgerald, Leontyne Price e Jessie Norman, oltre al carisma, alla musicalità e alla straordinaria personalità artistica espressa in capolavori come Respect, che nel 1967 divenne una sorta di inno ufficiale dei movimenti per i diritti civili e l’ emancipazione femminile, Think, A natural woman, che negli anni Sessanta lanciarono l’ artista a livello internazionale, hanno reso Aretha Franklin la massima interprete della musica afroamericana insieme a Ray Charles e James Brown. La cantante di Memphis è stata un vero e proprio simbolo per la gente della sua razza e una leggenda che andava al di là del suo peculiare mondo artistico raggiungendo anche gli appassionati di altri generi musicali. Per quelli della mia generazione in maniera particolare, Aretha Franklin è stata una voce di quelle che ci hanno accompagnato per tutta la vita e la notizia della sua morte rappresenta senza dubbio la fine di un’ epoca.

Non essendo un esperto di musica afroamericana, preferisco lasciare la parola agli specialisti per questo post commemorativo. Dalla rivista Clashmusic, ecco un’ accurata descrizione e la storia dell’ album I Never Loved a Man ithe Way I love You, che nel 1967 fece vincera alla Franklin il suo primo Gold Disc:

The first lady of soul took the world by storm with her 1967 release ‘I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)’. It doesn’t just ooze deep soul, but has it gushing out of every line, every word, every chord and every note. Released days before Aretha’s 25th birthday, it was a new beginning for her and R&B.

Aretha had been raised by her Baptist preacher father, CL Franklin, after the death of her mother when she was just six-years-old. Despite her religious upbringing, she had two children by the age of 16, who were left to be raised by their grandmother when their mother left to seek a better life in New York. It would be almost another ten years before she found the recognition she deserved and worked so hard for.

She was massively in debt when she parted company with her previous record label, Colombia, and signed to Atlantic in 1966. It was producer Jerry Wexler that transformed the still-young hopeful into what she became and remains to be today, the Queen of Soul. Franklin said herself of this period: “When I went to Atlantic, they just sat me down at the piano and the hits started coming.” Wexler helped Aretha turn her back on the jazzy sing-a-longs she had been recording and it was with ‘I Never Loved A Man…’ that she started doing what she became known and loved for. She brought gospel, R&B and rock ‘n’ roll together. The girl from Detroit brought the church into the forefront of mainstream music. If Jesus had returned to walk the earth in 1967, ‘I Never Loved A Man…’ would be playing behind his every step.

Nine albums had come before on Colombia, but none so groundbreaking as ‘I Never Loved a Man…’ It made such a wave that, 40 years later, it is still Considered the best soul album in the world and one of the best albums ever made. It features some of her best known songs including her first Billboard number one pop hit and number ten in the UK. Otis Redding’s ‘Respect’ exudes freedom, sexuality, love and faith.

Despite only making it to number two in the charts and with total album sales of only 500,000 at the time, it put Aretha up there with the daddies of soul – Otis, Ray Charles, Al Green, Marvin Gaye. It was the album that helped Aretha find her voice and become a voice for thousands of other women. ‘Respect’, recorded on Valentine’s Day and opening the album with its uplifting and exciting piano introduction, became an anthem for women’s and racial rights, while the rest of the album offered strength, passion and guidance to others. Two days after its recording, Aretha Franklin Day was declared in Detroit.

No one can sing the blues like Aretha. Ray Charles’ ‘Drown In My Own Tears’, previously recorded by Dinah Washington, tugged so hard at the heartstrings, you could almost hear them snap. It is followed by some renditions of her contemporaries’ finest song writing, like Sam Cooke’s ‘Good Times’ and the political ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’. Her versions stand side by side with the originals, with some being more recognisable with the Aretha makeover.

Aretha also penned some of the classics herself, with the help of her then husband and manager Ted White or younger sister Carolyn Franklin, such as ‘Don’t Let Me Lose This Dream’, ‘Save Me’ and the tender ‘Baby, Baby, Baby’. She made new songs by some of the world’s greatest musicians and writers, such as ‘Soul Serenade’ by Luther Dixon and Curtis Ousley, the real name of sax god King Curtis, her own. ‘Dr Feelgood (Love Is a Serious Business)’, with its rolling Hammond and powerful bluesy brass, was also written by the Franklin/White collaboration and is seen as one of the best original numbers on the album, but it is one of a collection that most soul singers could only dream of. Among the many single hits there was also the album’s title track, which reached number nine in the billboard chat, and ‘Do Right Man – Do Right Woman’.

During the recordings at the Florence Alabama Music Emporium in Muscle Shoals, a drunken brawl meant sessions at the famous studios had to be put on hold. The album almost wasn’t finished, until Aretha and all the Muscle Shoals musicians reconvened in New York to complete the project. ‘I Never Loved a Man…’ is an album where Aretha – a young, black woman – is in control. Aretha played piano and directed the band, which helped create the strong, rich and sublime with its horn and rhythm sections. With the great King Curtis on tenor sax and her little sister on backing vocals, the whole package is one to be proud of and sets the scene for Aretha’s many successes in the years to come.

Despite releasing such greats as ‘Say A Little Prayer’ the following year, Aretha didn’t score another number one in the US until 1987 with ‘I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)’, with George Michael.

Words by Gemma Hampson

Released: 10th March 1967
Produced by: Jerry Wexler

Fact File

Track Listing:
01 ‘Respect’ (Otis Redding)
02 ‘Drown In My Own Tears’ (Henry Glover)
03 ‘I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)’ (Ronny Shannon)
04 ‘Soul Serenade’ (Curtis Ousley, Luther Dixon)
05 ‘Don’t Let Me Lose This Dream’ (Aretha Franklin, Ted White)
06 ‘Baby, Baby, Baby’ (A. Franklin, Carolyn Franklin)
07 ‘Dr. Feelgood (Love Is A Serious Business’) (A. Franklin, White)
08 ‘Good Times’ (Sam Cooke)
09 ‘Do Right Woman, Do Right Man’ (Dan Penn, Chips Moman)
10 ‘Save Me’ (Ousley, A. Franklin, C. Franklin)
11 ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ (Cooke)

E questa è la versione di Respect, cover di un brano scritto da Otis Redding, contenuta nell’ album

L’ anno seguente, Aretha Franklin bissava il successo con Lady Soul, disco che la consacrava definitivamente a stella di prima grandezza. Questa analisi dell’ album è tratta dal sito di BBC Music

Released in January 1968, Lady Soul completed a remarkable 12 months of achievement for Aretha Franklin. Having been signed to Atlantic in 1966 after years in the doldrums at Columbia, her Jerry Wexler-produced albums, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You and Aretha Arrives had finally made her the critical and commercial toast of America.

Pieced together from material recorded since the start of 1967 – with the bulk captured at a December session in New York – Lady Soul won a set of remarkable statistical achievements that testify to how widely it cast its net. For example, the album peaked at numbers 1, 2 and 3 on Billboard’s Black Album, Pop Album and Jazz Album charts respectively.

It is one of those rare records that truly captures a moment; not just of Franklin’s singing, playing and writing, but of the electrifying support of the FAME studios session players. Guests included Bobby Womack and Eric Claptom, then in his imperial phase with Cream, and the album featured the vocal majesty of Franklin’s sisters, Carolyn and Erma.

Lady Soul hooks the listener in from the first very note of Joe South’s detuned guitar on Chain of Fools. Written by Don Covay, it became one of Franklin’s biggest hits and was to take on an incredible resonance as the Vietnam War destructively limped on for America.

And (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman is one of the greatest performances of one of the most sublime songs ever written.

At a little over two minutes into Good to Me as I Am to You, there is possibly the answer to the vexed and ongoing question, “What is soul?” It’s when Franklin sings the phrase “listen to this” over swelling horns, led by King Curtis, and the bass of Tommy Cogbill, sounding like he has several pairs of hands. It is simply perfect.

Nobody does it quite like Franklin (or, as Wexler called her, “the lady of mysterious sorrows”) – that irresistible marriage of the spiritual and the secular, the warm passion of her vocal.

Often copied, yet never equalled, these 10 tracks represent Aretha Franklin’s coronation as the Queen of Soul.

Ascoltiamo (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.

Non può mancare, in un omaggio alla grande Aretha, la celebre scena della sua partecipazione al film The Blues Brothers, uscito nel 1980 e diventato un vero e proprio cult movie.

Nel 1998, alla cerimonia di consegna dei Grammy Awards, il massimo evento del mondo musicale americano, Aretha Franklin dovette sostituire Luciano Pavarotti che aveva disdetto il suo intervento a causa di un’ improvvisa indisposizione. La sua versione di Nessun dorma è tuttora considerata tra i più grandi eventi nella storia del Grammy.

Per concludere, una stupenda interpretazione di un classico del rock come Jumpin’ Jack Flash che Aretha Franklin eseguì insieme a Ron Wood e Keith Richerds nel film omonimo del 1986, interpretato da Whoopi Goldberg e diretto da Penny Marshall.

Goodbye and rest in peace, Lady Soul! Aretha Franklin rimarrà per sempre nei cuori degli appassionati di tutto il mondo e da oggi appartiene al Pantheon degli immortali della musica.

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